CONCORD, N.H. — Sixty-five-years ago, 1st Lt. Bernerd Harding huddled in a cellar with a few other airmen captured by German farmers and buried his pilot’s wings, fearful he’d be beaten or shot as an American bomber pilot.
Now, at age 90, Harding wants his wings back. He’s headed to Germany on Sunday and hopes — with the help of a German doctor — to find the farm house cellar and dig up the 3-inch long metal wings that he had proudly pinned to his shirt. The house was in rural Klein Quenstedt (pronounced klyn KWEN’-shted), Germany, southwest of Berlin, he said.
“I know exactly where the wings are. They’re not very deep. I won’t need a shovel,” he said in a firm, clear voice during a telephone interview from his Milford, N.H., home.
A month after the D-Day invasion of Normandy, Harding was a 25-year-old B-24 pilot flying his 14th mission when he was shot down. Harding, a member of the 8th Air Force’s 492nd Bomb Group, was leading nine other B-24s in the 859th squadron on a daylight mission to bomb an aircraft manufacturing plant in Bernburgh on July 7, 1944. He was carrying 11 other soldiers on his plane.
He had just dropped his bomb load when the support planes that kept German fighters at bay were diverted to protect bombers in another squadron. Shortly afterward, German fighters crippled his plane, nicknamed Georgette, and Harding ordered his crew to parachute.
“Our inboard engines were on fire. We lost every control. I gave the order for everyone to bail out. I bailed out last,” Harding said.
All 10 planes in his squadron, carrying about 100 crewmen and pilots were shot down, he recalled. At least half died, he said. Of the 12 men aboard Georgette, only one died that day, shot in the head by his German captors, Harding found out later. The others were all captured and survived the war, but have since died.
Harding landed in a freshly cut wheat field. Three farmers, two with pitchforks and one with a gun, captured him and herded him into the cellar. They held him until German army officers could take charge.
Two other airmen who had been shot down were already being held when Harding arrived. He dug a hole and buried his wings.
“We were there a while. We heard a wagon rumbling over the cobblestones,” he said.
A young German who spoke English ordered the airmen to take the body of a dead American airman off the wagon.
After several hours, Germans soldiers loaded the captured Americans into a van that took them to Halberstadt Air Force Base. About 100 other Americans had been rounded up from 36 planes shot down that day, Harding said. Three days later, they were loaded onto a train to Frankfurt, interrogated and then sent to a prisoner of war camp in Barth.
After 10 months in the POW camp, the Russian army was approaching from the East. The German captors told the 7,500 prisoners to leave. The next morning, the Germans had fled, Harding said. The Russians freed the prisoners.
As the years passed, Harding didn’t think much about his wings. He wasn’t sure how the German villagers would treat an American pilot who had bombed their country.
Then last year, he attended services at Arlington National Cemetery for six airmen whose remains had only recently been discovered with the help of German villagers. Harding began to think Klein Quenstedt residents might help him recover his wings and close a chapter in his life.
Early this year, a friend of Harding’s found a Web site about an old water mill in Klein Quenstedt owned by Dr. Ulrich Heucke (pronounced HOY’-kuh), a village resident. The friend e-mailed Heucke describing Harding’s quest and asked for help.
Heucke, 41, became intrigued because of his interest in history, and wrote back. He began interviewing older village residents who remembered what had happened.
One resident remembered a dead airman with his parachute wrapped around him. That fit Harding’s description of the dead man he helped take off the wagon.
Heucke sent Harding pictures of several houses that might be where he was held, but Harding didn’t recognize them. The pictures showed the front of the houses, and Harding had entered through the rear.
Heucke plans to take Harding and his family to four farm houses Wednesday in search of his wings.
“There were some places I definitely know American airmen were in. Others I just suspect,” Heucke said.
The village hasn’t changed much, but some buildings have been remodeled, Heucke said. Most of the older farm houses are still standing.
He said chances of Harding finding the pin are slim. But people in the small village of 750 want to help.
“We will just go around. It is the last hope to find the place,” he said.
Heucke also has arranged for Harding to fly over the village to see if that helps pinpoint the house.
“I would like to get to know Bernerd Harding after the time we communicated,” Heucke said. “It is very interesting that a man 90 years of age is coming here, making a journey to see this place.”
Harding just hopes he finds the right cellar and no one has poured concrete over the floor in the years since he scratched his shallow hole in the dirt.
On the Net: U.S. Air Force 492nd Bomb Group, http://www.492ndbombgroup.com/